Sink or Swim: Miami’s Perilous Future Facing Climate Change
By Tara Lohan
With its white-sand beaches and glittery high-rises, Miami is still a vacation hotspot. But lapping at those shores is another reality. The city is also a "possible future Atlantis, and a metonymic stand-in for how the rest of the developed world might fail — or succeed — in the climate-changed future," wrote Miami journalist Mario Alejandro Ariza in his forthcoming book, Disposable City: Miami's Future on the Shores of Climate Catastrophe.
This may not be news to some. The city's plight has been the subject of investigative reporting and even viral news stories after an octopus showed up in a parking garage following an especially high tide.
But Ariza takes a much deeper, more personal dive into the slowly unfolding disaster. Along the way he finds that the central question is whether South Florida — home to 6.5 million people — can equitably withstand what's coming. To do so it will need to reckon with its past sins. "Miami is a damn beautiful city, and it rests on a sodden foundation of merciless racial and environmental exploitation," he wrote.
The first step is figuring out how much sea-level rise there may be and when it's coming — but even that isn't easy, and there's no one definitive number. The regional climate change compact predicts two to six feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century; a NASA scientist has said eight to 10 feet.
One thing is certain, though: 20 percent of Miami-Dade County sits less than two feet above the sea. And by some estimates, the water could get that high in just 40 years.
The time to determine what future Miami may have is now.
After detailing that grim if uncertain reality, Ariza takes a detailed journey through South Florida's vulnerabilities, what actions the region is taking, and those it isn't. The first-person narrative follows Ariza through smelly, flooded city streets; a rigorous paddle to assess the risks to local infrastructure by kayak; and a day traipsing through thick swamps with two veterans to capture invasive Burmese pythons slithering amok.
This drives home a few points: South Florida's environmental problems aren't limited to sea-level rise — although the rising water could make much of it worse.
The draining of swamps, altering of water courses and brazen development have taken a mighty ecological toll. The Everglades are dying, and restoration efforts are painfully slow. The Miami River is choked by nutrient pollution — from leaking septic systems and fertilizer runoff — that's killing seagrasses, a keystone species of shallow marine ecosystems, and an important buffer against storms.
Environmental collapse is just part of the problem, though. There's also economic distress.
"If you expect to survive into the middle of the 21st century, you might just get to watch Miami die," Ariza wrote. "But not before the changing climate stretches the city's already yawning gap between rich and poor past its breaking point."
Miami-Dade is a majority-minority county with half its residents foreign-born. It also has an enormous wealth gap, with 6 in 10 residents spending more than one-third of their income on housing. And most of those who are struggling to make ends meet are black and Hispanic service-sector workers, Ariza explains.
It's precisely those communities with the fewest resources that will be hardest hit by stronger storms, hotter temperatures and rising tides. These inequities "are as dangerous as the city's low-lying topography and porous geology," he wrote.
Already a kind of climate gentrification is underway.
Flooding in Miami's Brickell neighborhood in 2017. Phillip Pessar / CC BY 2.0
Ariza explains how decades of racist policies and real-estate practices have pushed communities of color away from the beach and the newly emerging suburbs. They ended up sandwiched in between, in an area of high ground that now looks enticing to developers.
This new pressure is increasing gentrification in communities already barely surviving. It's liable to get worse, too, Ariza explains. Between $15-$23 billion worth of property may be underwater in 30 years. The market has yet to broadly reflect that, but developers are building on borrowed time, even as the lower-income communities are already feeling the pinch.
"Everything we know about climate change indicates that it pulls at society's loose ends," said Ariza. These cracks in vulnerability could become chasms if the right policies aren't enacted as the city works to mitigate and adapt.
By the end of Disposable City, it's likely readers won't be wildly optimistic about Miami's chances. But they will be armed with a deeper view of what's at stake and the complexities of trying to solve an environmental and social challenge of this magnitude. Even if the city itself does everything right, it still needs the state of Florida to embrace climate reality and the rest of the world to meet science-based targets for greenhouse gas reductions. Efforts are underway, including a newly released draft plan from the Army Corps of Engineers to spend $4.6 billion on sea walls and other projects to protect businesses and homes from storm surges. But much more will be needed.
In Miami these next decades will be fight or flight. Or a combination of both. And he muses on what that would look like. And feel like. Ariza himself is an immigrant, having come to Miami from the Dominican Republic as a kid. He already carries the grief of having left a homeland — a feeling that half the city's population also knows intimately.
"Now we have to face the fact that climate change may well force us to scatter again," he wrote.
The end of the book turns from this hard reality to a future vision as Ariza shifts to a fictional envisioning. No spoilers, but it's safe to say Miami in 2100 will be a changed place. And that's at least one thing we know for sure about this warming world — it is a changing one.
Ariza's deep dive into Miami is an intricate look at his vulnerable city, but it's likely to get readers thinking about their own. What will your hometown look like in 80 years? What do you want it to look like? What will you do to make that hope a reality?
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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From Greta Thunberg to Sir David Attenborough, the headline-grabbing climate change activists and environmentalists of today are predominantly white. But like many areas of society, those whose voices are heard most often are not necessarily representative of the whole.
1. Wangari Maathai<p>In 2004, Professor Maathai made history as the <a href="https://www.nobelpeaceprize.org/Prize-winners/Prizewinner-documentation/Wangari-Maathai" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize</a> for her dedication to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She started the <a href="http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Green Belt Movement</a>, a community-based tree planting initiative that aims to reduce poverty and encourage conservation, in 1977. More than 51 million trees have been planted helping build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls. Her environmental work is celebrated every year on <a href="http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/955" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Wangari Maathai Day on 3 March</a>.</p>
2. Robert Bullard<p>Known as the 'father of environmental justice,' Dr Bullard has <a href="https://www.unep.org/championsofearth/laureates/2020/robert-bullard" target="_blank">campaigned against harmful waste</a> being dumped in predominantly Black neighborhoods in the southern states of the U.S. since the 1970s. His first book, Dumping in Dixie, highlighted the link between systemic racism and environmental oppression, showing how the descendants of slaves were exposed to higher-than-average levels of pollutants. In 1994, his work led to the signing of the <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/albert-huang/20th-anniversary-president-clintons-executive-order-12898-environmental-justice" target="_blank">Executive Order on Environmental Justice</a>, which the <a href="https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/" target="_blank">Biden administration is building on</a>.<br></p>
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Pollution has a race problem. Elizabethwarren.com
3. John Francis<p>Helping the clean-up operation after an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in January 1971 inspired Francis to <a href="https://planetwalk.org/about-john/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stop taking motorized transport</a>. Instead, for 22 years, he walked everywhere. He also took a vow of silence that lasted 17 years, so he could listen to others. He has walked the width of the U.S. and sailed and walked through South America, earning the nickname "Planetwalker," and raising awareness of how interconnected people are with the environment.</p>
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4. Dr. Warren Washington<p>A meteorology and climate pioneer, Dr. Washington was one of the first people to develop atmospheric computer models in the 1960s, which have helped scientists understand climate change. These models now also incorporate the oceans and sea ice, surface water and vegetation. In 2007, the <a href="https://www.cgd.ucar.edu/pcm/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Parallel Climate Model (PCM)</a> and <a href="https://www.cesm.ucar.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Community Earth System Model (CESM)</a>, earned Dr. Washington and his colleagues the <a href="https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2007/summary/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nobel Peace Prize</a>, as part of the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change</a>.</p>
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5. Angelou Ezeilo<p>Huge trees and hikes to pick berries during her childhood in upstate New York inspired Ezeilo to become an environmentalist and set up the <a href="https://gyfoundation.org/staff/Angelou-Ezeilo" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Greening Youth Foundation</a>, to educate future generations about the importance of preservation. Through its schools program and Youth Conservation Corps, the social enterprise provides access to nature to disadvantaged children and young people in the U.S. and West Africa. In 2019, Ezeilo published her book <em>Engage, Connect, Protect: Empowering Diverse Youth as Environmental Leaders</em>, co-written by her Pulitzer Prize-winning brother Nick Chiles.</p>
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